Teaching Candidate in Hijab Claims Discrimination by Kuwaiti School

Fouzia Khatun on Instagram

..When Fouzia Khatun applied to teach at the English Playgroup, Kuwait, she thought wearing a hijab and sharing common religious beliefs would help her to be a good fit for the job. To her complete dismay, she later received an email from Caroline Brooks of the HR department, saying her employment depended on a willingness to remove her hijab while teaching: “…parents do not want their children taught by covered teachers, this is an English school.” 

..On her Instagram page Fouzia displays the email from Caroline Brooks. The school denies the allegations, saying Caroline Brooks was not in their employ. Later, however, they changed their statement reporting, Caroline Brooks has been “disciplined.” The school asserts that Fouzia’s application for employment was not accepted due to her use of social media and that action has been taken against her for “slanderous comments.”

..…The English Playgroup issued the following statement:
“The English Playgroup and Primary Schools employ qualified teachers from all nationalities, religions and backgrounds who serve students as excellent and caring teachers. Allegations of discrimination against hijab-wearing staff are untrue. Our schools proudly employ many hijab wearing teachers and administrators across our schools. The allegations against the school have been disseminated by an unsuccessful overseas job applicant who was refused employment because of inappropriate behavior as illustrated on her social media platform. The opinions expressed by a new employee in the HR department are against company policy and necessary disciplinary action has been taken.”

..Fouzia is quoted as saying that her Instagram page was private before this incident, so a claim of “inappropriate behavior” on social media is unfounded. The English Playgroup later released photos on Instagram of teachers wearing a hijab while on the job. Fouzia is suing the English playgroup.

..ISR Asks: Is this an isolated incident? Was it simply a mistake on the part of an HR employee? To your knowledge, do Muslim women experience this type of discrimination in Kuwait and other Islamic countries when applying for jobs in Western-oriented schools and companies?

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11 Responses to Teaching Candidate in Hijab Claims Discrimination by Kuwaiti School

  1. Concerned abroad says:

    In my experience, while working in Kuwait, there are many practices that are immoral, racist and downright illegal. These practices come from locally and internationally trained professionals. The class system is entrenched in these middle eastern countries. I have seen Egyptian men and women being treated like second class citizens because of their nationality. They are treated this way because in the eyes of the locals, Egyptians are of the lower class when it comes to Arabs in the Middle East. I am a western, white women who recently converted to Islam and one of my assistant principals is aware of my conversion. During a recent International day where teachers and students wear local customary dress I was asked by that assistant principal, because I wore a hijab and abaya that day, if I planned on wearing it permanently. When I replied, “no”, her response was, “ ok, good, because you work for a school with western values and as a western educator you aren’t allowed to wear the hijab.” Things like this happen frequently and by very well known schools in Kuwait. I am fairly new to the Middle East so seeing this kind of mentality by locals and western professionals Is appalling.

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  2. Around 7 years ago, I contributed a post to ISR that was titled by the editorial staff “Us vs Them – A Redneck Muslim’s Interpretation of Racism in International Schools”. Bigotry or discrimination certainly would have been a more apt word than racism, but such are a editorial boards ;)! While the issues raised in the post were not related to dress, they did focus on disproportionate scrutiny that I experienced based on what I believe was religious discrimination. Being a practicing male Muslim who wears a beard chooses to cover his head with a traditional “kufi”, I remember asking the Canadian principal of a leading school in Qatar (prior to the start of the school year) about continuing this observance which I had practiced while teaching in public schools Stateside. The response was similar: “I don’t think our community is quite ready for that.”

    My experience at that school led me to drop the superogatory practice of head covering when teaching in Egypt. When I felt comfortable to do so again, I was quickly rebuked by the Egyptian director. I left the practice more or less permanently in the workplace after that and adopted a more moderately lengthed beard (if only hipsters had been as visible then as now!). What was interesting was that, at the same school, a student was permitted to wear a Nazi costume to school for Halloween without comment. I was, in fact, given a lecture about freedom of speech when I brought up its inappropriateness with administration.

    I agree with one of the above posters who indicated a prevailing attitude of overseas communities that “if it’s white it’s right.” I myself am white; but being a convert to Islam, I certainly don’t fit the profile these schools are looking for. In fact, my presence may be perceived as more threatening to such communities than that of an “ethnic” practicing Muslim, despite having 16 years of experience under my belt, certification in 4 subject areas, an honors degree from a public Ivy, and a masters degree from the U.K.

    I disagree with the statement by the same poster that social media accounts or living in the West are somehow discordant with the regional conception of a Muslim woman’s suitability for work with children. These schools are more than happy to have uncovered Muslim women from the East or West teaching at their schools, and many of the most conservative women in the region have social media accounts. I know because I market my tutoring and homeschooling services to them! You can also rest assured that such communities (which certainly don’t represent all learning communities in the region) aren’t in the slightest bit interested in converting non-Muslim employees.

    When I first moved to the Middle East, having studied the region and language as the focus of my major in university, I had low expectations of any religiosity or correlate respect for conservative observances. As such, I was often pleasantly surprised by what I actually saw on the ground. What remains disconcerting to me are two things:

    1. That, often times, said discrimination is carried out by Western leadership that should know better. One would think that Westerners going to work abroad would be more pluralistic and principled (pun intended), but the opposite is often true. While there certainly are leaders out there with scruples, many (if not most) are beholden to their employers or given to baser instincts when the strictures of liberal democracy and legal accountability are no longer in place. However, secularism (to the exclusion of pluralism and freedom of speech) is as dearly held by such communities as pluralism is held in North America and the U.K. and as faith principles are held by observant believers of any creed. Ironically, those Western leaders that have an ax to grind with pluralism, Islam, or both find a home among such communities abroad and are more able to affect change towards their values than conservatives ever will be in these schools. It is a mistake, however, to think that this is only a problem abroad. It was, after all, at an inner-city public school in the U.S. where I was prohibited by the principal from using my legally adopted Arabic first name among staff.

    2. To extend on the assertion of AK above, that conservative Muslims from the West continue in the delusion that they can actually change these institutions through litigation or protest. Make a statement with your feet and seek employment at one of the many religious IB, British, or American curricular schools abroad. But remember that you are still in the developing world and that your leaders will need to make compromises with power-brokers that may not suit your religious palate. Still, you will have a shared base of values with your school and most of the community. Education of any kind, whether with the indigent or victims of affluenza, is missionary work and difficult by definition. But you will touch minds and hearts and be warmed by the occasional message from a former student who attributes their success to you. What a reward!

    Now comes the criticism in some readers’ minds, the accusation of a double standard in points above, that I am critical of Westerners who discriminate but advocating schools which would likely have a preferential hiring policy towards conservative Muslims. Honestly, I would have a problem with a religious school which promoted itself as an open community but discriminated against people not in line with their community values. My problem with the aforementioned schools, as stated in my 7-year-old post, is their claimed commitment to diversity and respect when such diversity goes only as deep as the color of people’s skin and languages they speak at home. I certainly would see no hypocrisy in a community that stated their commitment to Christian values, or secularism for that matter, that hired only individuals committed to such values.

    “But no school can do that in the Middle East!” you say. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or Iran; that’s simply not the case. There are churches, temples, and non-Muslim religious schools throughout the Gulf region, Levant, Turkey and North Africa. To say otherwise is ignorance of the region. Further, many of the same people who would want to advocate for greater liberality in this regard in the Middle East are the same people who complain of Muslim immigration to the West and hurl accusations of Shari’ah-based hegemonistic goals on the part of the Muslim diaspora.

    What I have a problem with, and don’t expect to be remedied, is the larger problem of consistency between stated vision, mission, and values and held vision, mission, and values as evidenced by practice. We’ll always fall short of the ideals present in these statements of principle and purpose; they are lofty for a reason – to give us something to aspire towards. But it is not too much to expect people to be working towards these goals rather than actively subverting them. At the same time, there will always be so many people who don the garb of conscientiousness to achieve commercial or even more nefarious aims. For that reason, communities such as International Schools Review are all the more important so that educators can make informed decisions as to which schools actually do say what they mean and mean what they say.

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  3. This seems very odd. Is the teacher a Muslim herself? Then she should be allowed to practice her faith freely. The same debate exists for Christians teaching in “secular” schools regarding the wearing of the cross. Schools either take offence or don’t really care. I do believe that if a school calls themselves “International”, then surely International schools should encourage diversity and understanding? Just a thought.

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  4. AK says:

    Best of luck suing a school in the Middle East! Having taught in Qatar for 3 years, I witnessed many injustices to staff and local workers. When decisions were made about renewing contracts etc they were taken swiftly, often without logic and with no reference to employment laws. That was with staff that were already in employment. I would doubt if it would be worthwhile taking this incident to any further degree except to say that discrimination of any kind is abhorrent.
    In my school, there was a gradual increase in discriminatory behaviour against people of other faiths other than Islam by the owners and some senior staff. Discrimination remains wrong wherever or whoever it targets.

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  5. Lauren says:

    I worked in an American school in Indonesia in the early 2000’s. Most of our Indonesian teachers, who taught culture and language, wore their hijab, and it was a non-issue. I believe that over the years, a greater sensitivity to religious/cultural differences has developed, contributed to by mass media and lack of awareness and/or education. It is up to schools to have a very clear policy on this issue, so that all stakeholders know what to expect re. the school in which they work or enrolled their children.

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  6. JS says:

    I worked at an American school in Kuwait and saw no such issue. Several teachers wore hijab. This is an odd story, something seems off.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    The truth is that in many countries parents are paying premium private school tuitions so their child can be taught by Western, native English speakers. A hijab Muslim does not fit that branding and certainly does NOT represent the majority of teachers in Western countries. The same bias exists against Western born Asian ethnic teachers when they try to get jobs in South Korea, Japan etc. because the image of a “Western” teacher is, unfortunately, caucasian. This woman has now guaranteed she will not ever be hired in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere due to the publicity. She already was viewed as contaminated by being a Muslim from a Western country! Don’t laugh– it is truly how many there think because they figure no proper Muslim could exist in the Western moral cesspool. Additionally, international schools prefer their teachers be sheep with no controversies and NO personal online or social media presence and she brings a lawsuit? Due to the religion, female teachers in the Middle East (working for Middle Eastern owned and operated schools) had better be married or appear supervirginal in public at all times. Culture, it is all about their culture. What makes her think she can waltz into a job there wearing her hijab so fully corrupted by living in the West. At least if it was an infidel there would be a chance of conversion but what to do with this cheeky Western Muslim??!!! See now how the employer views her?

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    • Adam Clark says:

      Across the middle east, British schools discriminate against western born Asian staff both within the teaching community due to their own prejudice and racist views but also the local Arab population want a ‘white’ western English person teaching their children as this is both a status symbol and they want their children to have English accents. Arab parents have openly expressed disgust at Asian teachers and remarked that they are paying for white teachers not brown ones. They are seen as second class citizens and are sending their children to British schools to be taught by ‘white’ British staff.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    No this is definitely not an isolated incident.
    I am not at liberty to disclose further due to my position, however I have experienced similar discrimination in the said company.

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    • JS says:

      That sounds like a racist school with no respect for their host country. Why the Emir would allow such bad guests to remain is beyond me.

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      • Anonymous says:

        Just a point of correction- religion is not ‘race’. Indeed there is only one ‘race’ and all we humans belong to it. But that does not excuse such apparent discriminatory behaviour.

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